Nobody is Wrong All the Time

In 1849, the American Bible Society included in its annual report a section that read, “Voltaire predicted that in the 19th century the Bible would be known only as a relic of antiquity.”  Voltaire was a witty 18th century French intellectual who harbored deep hatred for Judeo-Christian Biblical civilization. 

On page 94 of his Philosophical Dictionary he writes about Jews, “…an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” 

In a letter to King Frederick of Prussia he described Christianity as “…assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.”  Needless to say, in common with most secular fundamentalists today, he is much more tolerant and openminded about Islam.

Because nobody is wrong all the time, he made some good observations about business.  In his Letters Concerning the English Nation, he contrasts England, where he lived for three years,  with his native France.  He describes how ordinary Frenchmen try to pass themselves off as aristocrats using phrases like “a man of my quality and rank” while they “hold merchants in the most sovereign contempt.”  Voltaire then goes on to say, “The merchant, again, by dint of hearing his profession despised on all occasions, at last is fool enough to blush at his condition.  I will not however take upon me to say which is the most useful to his country.”

England, he explains, is unique in having started off as a warlike and conquering nation that then transformed itself into a commercial nation. Writing about when Edward III conquered half of France in the 14th century, Votaire writes, “London was a poor country town.” He then explains that, eventually, owing to the English having become traders, businessmen and merchants, London outgrew Paris in power and prestige.  Voltaire marvels at how only in England, the younger son of a “peer of the realm” can achieve prominence and success as a merchant.  In most European countries, he says, men are obsessed with inherited title and finding connection to kings however in England, regardless of birth, a man could raise himself through trading in coal, wool, and corn.  Voltaire mocks the would-be French and German aristocrats, “whose whole fortunes and estate put together, amounted to a few coats of arms and the starving pride they inherited from their ancestors.”

Voltaire would have been shocked to know that the Bible emphasizes the very approach he saw in England and praised.  Instead of highlighting the political or ecclesiastical aristocrat, the ordinary citizen-farmer is the hero.

We’re told that when Israel enters its land all farmers should bring their annual first fruits to Jerusalem where they should place the baskets before the priest in the Temple. They were then to recite a proclamation.

Wouldn’t you suppose that in appreciation of nature’s bounty the grateful farmer might recite verses praising God’s creation of nature and its miraculous processes that make possible human sustenance?  For instance, you might have expected those who brought their first fruits to articulate verses like these from Psalms.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving sing praise upon the harp to our God who covers the heaven with clouds, who prepares rain for the earth, who makes grass grow on the mountains.
(Psalms 147:7-8)

In response to which, the priest might emphasize his own unique position in God’s hierarchy. . 

However, in fact, the Jewish farmer’s annual first fruits proclamation is quite different and quite unexpected:

An Aramean tried to destroy my father, who then went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; But the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us terrible slavery.  And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders.  And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey.  And now, I have brought the first fruits of the land.
(Deuteronomy 26:5-9)

Why a condensed history lesson rather than praise for nature’s bounty?  Precisely because history bonds us to those who came before us and those who will follow us.  Moreover, history bonds us to our nearest and dearest as we gather to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and memorial observances.  Amazingly, when we are celebrating the sustenance we enjoy, it is far more appropriate to celebrate our connection to our people than it is to sing of nature.

Our hero is the ordinary man who produces food and abundance from the earth.  Only his proclamation matters and that proclamation personally links him not to his government and its bureaucrats, and not to his house of worship and its priests, but to his God, to his community and to his people. 

Voltaire fails to note that Britain’s move towards the prosperity that eventually laid the foundations of the British Empire was occasioned by Oliver Cromwell’s readmission of Jews into England in 1656 from where they had been  evicted in 1290.  Bringing with them Scripture’s approval of the independent farmer and merchant who spread prosperity to individuals as well as to the nation, Jews helped transform London into the trading capital of the world. 

Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any verification that Voltaire either said or wrote the often-quoted prediction about the Bible becoming extinct.  But, in a way that Voltaire might not appreciate that old secular cynic’s praise for the English merchant does correspond to Scripture’s recommendation for the economic life of a nation.

7 thoughts on “Nobody is Wrong All the Time”

  1. Long ago, I wanted to spend time with the writings of the ‘great thinkers’ of history. But work and study usually precluded this. Later, I was in a Great Books club, and finally got to people like Voltaire. Some of the writers we read sounded very modern, and reasonable, and frankly, much like us. But, many of the most famous–like Voltaire–to me sounded like crazy people doing drugs, or maybe needing medication. Why the world is so drawn to madmen and cynical monsters never fails to amaze and disgust me.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear CK–
      Just because they’re ancient doesn’t mean they’re all wise. People were created as communal beings. We like doing what others are doing and we like being where others are we like admiring those admired by others. Very few have the courage and discernment necessary for differentiation.

    2. Thanks to you Rabbi and your delectable and very educated wife, Susan. I am really amazed at how she knows so much and still submits.

      I can’t really say how I got in contact with your podcast and materials but needless to say, I have been transformed by the Wisdom you share.

      Whenever I listen to your podcasts, I am motivated to study more and more about history which is something that is being eroded, diluted, altered or completely avoided in our days even in Nigeria. You can hardly find schools who steal teach history.

      Thank you and let me just add, it’s always amazing when you and Susan are doing a podcast together. Nothing like it!

      1. Moses, we don’t actually use the language of submission. That isn’t a Jewish idea. We each have our areas of expertise and we respect each other’s opinions. I do see my husband as the head of the household but “submission” suggests to my ear that he isn’t able to convince me he is correct when we have a disagreement but that doesn’t matter. I think my Christian friends might see the word differently as it appears in their Scripture.

        1. Dear Susan, Protestants read the King James Bible that it differs from the source (Catholic and its first translation by St Jerome that was thirty years in the cave translating it). The Catholic Church (founded by JC himself), in the beginning in order to be accurate and in sync with the Truth proclaimed by JC the Messiah (who cites the Old Testament as well), used seventy two Rabies and Teachers of the Hebrew law that made individual translations from the Hebrew (I have to clarified that these individuals didn’t have contact between them) and the translations that were coincidently (almost all of them) were the ones that were took in account and are part of our Catholic (Universal) Bible, Old and New Testament, these books include 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Sirach and Wisdom, also another additions to Esther and Daniel, those are not in the King James Bible, we are very careful with the accuracy of everything regarding God’s Word, always being, it is a supreme responsibility not distorted, our teachers have tested everything that occurs in the supernatural realm or Divine dimension as Catholic prefer to call it, and we have been attacked by the enemy furiously (prove that we are unto something) but it was with terrible pain that Catholics experience the Protestants upraise at the head of Calvin and Luther who was a Catholic Monk and Priest (He had a point about indulgences, that had been rectified already from those times through Councils) They could work their differences inside the Church, they didn’t have to divide it (Protestants don’t have a head, they are all divided and spread and believe different things because of the different translations). Politics at the moment, didn’t help neither, Henry the VIII wanted to get divorce, He dished the Pope and became Pope what now is call the Anglican Church, probably the most similar to us, they still make the sacrifice in the mass, imitating the sacrifice in the Temple as in the OT, it is a beautiful ceremony where Heavens opens to this realm and Angels sing to the Lord. Protestants lost all that, they don’t believe in the Divinity of the Woman who God used to became man and dwell among us. She as Eva too, had born without original sin, our goal is to imitate her but we don’t talk of submission, she is The Queen of the Universe, God gave her power over the creation, she was ascended in body and soul, there isn’t a burial for her as another Christians believe (I think Elijah also ascend in body, I read that, I am not sure) the “submission” is not to our husbands, but to God and in taking care of others (including our husbands and its special bond that is the Sacrament of marriage) we follow God requests, women are central in the Catholic Faith, as I know they are in the OT too (Judith, Deborah, etc).
          Sorry I got enthusiastic, I mention this because you don’t know all this things (why would you?) but to give you some perspective that not all the Christians Protestants believe the same things, the only one that keep the original Faith (as Jesus gave the directions to the apostles) as the same way from the beginning (2019 years) are the Catholics. Catholic Doctrine is complex, very rich, it is not about Bible alone but history that gives us the context, Divine revelation, study of all the books of the antiquity, including all the apocryphal, and the heresies, etc
          Now, we are going through very bad times, we have a Pope that is not Catholic, just the result of Vatican II and because he is an ideologist of Theory of Liberation (in short it states that Jesus was the first communist), and a Jesuit, but he Is the result of an infiltration that started many centuries ago to destroy the Catholic Church from inside, Protestantism was part of it.
          But the Catholic church cant be destroyed for a bad Pope, or its enemies (masons) because it doesn’t belongs to the people, belongs to God, we are the Church Militant here in this realm, we are soldiers.
          We are very open minded and tolerant although we speaks the Truth or try too in a world that doesn’t listen. Jesus already warned us that, but He gave us so much tools and help to be ready and steady in the Faith, and we welcome in open debate all others beliefs , and we learn mainly from our Jewish brothers because we don’t forget that God chose you mainly because He stablished that relationship with you since the beginning, the difference is that you still wait for him. He will come, we don’t know when but we need to be ready, we say the second coming to straight things up and etc, etc.
          My husband and I love you guys, we have learned so more practical things and how to understand the OT regarding everyday lives and so many things that were missing from us and we suggested new readings to our Priest, in that light. Peace for all! (Usually I would suggest to our Christians Brothers (some of them hate us but we don’t hate them as they like to believe) to come back to the Source of Christianity, but this is bad timing, we are a mess, more that our normal usual:)
          Continue your good work! And God be with you.

  2. Rabbi,
    I have long benefited from the wisdom you bring to light. And, I might add, I have also benefited from Susan’s observations.

    Thanks again,

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